Letters to the editor

Military Politics

Andrew Bacevich has it both right and wrong concerning the current state of U.S. civil-military relations (“Warrior Politics,” May Atlantic). He correctly observes that “hallowed principles of civilian control … have eroded badly.” We have indeed drifted far from the ideal of true civilian supremacy: sound public oversight of legislative oversight of executive oversight of an accountable, self-policing military. Instead, we suffer from civilian subjugation, in which too many civilian officials are militarily and strategically illiterate; are advocates for, rather than overseers of, the military; or are more militaristic even than the military itself.

Bacevich’s concerns, though, about lower-ranking military personnel asserting themselves publicly on policy issues seem misplaced. It would be one thing if these voices were pushing us to war. But they are, at best, seeking to express their opposition to those in authority who misuse them for selfish political ends.

There is a tacit social contract of mutual rights, obligations, and expectations that binds the parties in the civil-military relationship to one another. Where civilian officials show themselves to be strategically incompetent, they have broken the contract. This is where the military must step up to provide strategically sound advice—to involve itself, that is, in the high politics of statecraft. When senior officers fail to do so, who is left to fulfill this obligation?

Had the military’s senior officers spoken up for those in the ranks when it counted—before marching mutely off to war in Iraq—the few civic-minded dissenters in uniform who are now speaking out would have had no reason to do so.

Gregory D. Foster
National Defense University
Washington, D.C.

Andrew Bacevich writes: “To assuage uneasy consciences, the many who do not serve proclaim their high regard for the few who do.” I find his cynicism hurtfully shocking. Some of us express our high regard for our soldiers because we hold them in high regard. As the sister of a National Guard soldier who went to Iraq this year precisely because he’s willing to die for the principle of civilian leadership while we at home sort this mess out politically, I can state that my high regard for such a man has nothing to do with an uneasy conscience.

Also, I take issue with his assertion that soldiers should be limited to making themselves heard through voting. In modern politics one’s point of view is worth nothing if it cannot be publicized or advocated collectively. Furthermore, our constitutional rights are expressly not limited to voting. Rather they extend to freedoms of expression, especially where political speech is concerned. To constrain only soldiers, among citizens, from expressing their views is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Emily Miller
Golden, Colo.

Andrew Bacevich replies:

Gregory Foster wants soldiers to involve themselves in “the high politics of statecraft,” apparently assuming that soldiers will see things his way. But there’s no guarantee that the politicking soldiers will share Foster’s enlightened views.

Since writing “Warrior Politics,” I learned of another embryonic soldiers’ lobby, this one the brainchild of a naval officer currently serving in Iraq. Calling itself the “Appeal for Courage,” this initiative (www.appealforcourage.org) is petitioning Congress to “halt any calls for retreat” in Iraq. With that end in mind, the 2,000-plus soldiers who’ve endorsed this petition urge their “political leaders to actively oppose media efforts which embolden my enemy while demoralizing American support at home.” In short, they advocate censorship—an example of what we can anticipate from a politically active military.

I apologize for delivering a hurtful shock to Emily Miller. Apparently, she’s keen to allow soldiers the same rights as citizens not in uniform. If she gets her way, we won’t have an army; we’ll have a rabble. Absent the constraints that she finds offensive, the discipline that is a precondition to military effectiveness will vanish.

The Gift of the Soviets

In his review of Norman Davies’s Europe at War, 1939–1945 (“Stalin’s Gift,” May Atlantic), Benjamin Schwarz writes, “At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehr­macht divisions.” While I have nothing but admiration for the efforts of the Red Army against Nazi Germany, Schwarz’s description of the Allied war effort in the West is incorrect. During the Battle of France, there were many times more than 15 divisions involved on both sides—the Battle of the Bulge, for example, included about 35 Allied and 26 German division-sized units. Schwarz also ignores a larger point, which is that the Western Allies were engaged in a multi­front war, whereas the Soviets were fighting on only one front. U.S. forces, for example, were engaged in several theaters simultaneously, including France, Italy, China, and the Pacific.

James F. Schumaker
Kiev, Ukraine

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

I didn’t say that only 30 Allied and Axis divisions were deployed in the West, but that the most intense and crucial combat in the West involved 30 divisions. Richard Overy, probably the foremost scholar of the Allies’ war in Western Europe, makes this assertion in his acclaimed book Why the Allies Won, and he defines this period as June through August 1944, when the Allies, facing ferocious German opposition, broke out from the Normandy beachhead (Operation Cobra) and “the battle was still poised.” Neither Overy nor I was thinking of the Battle of the Bulge. (Contrary to James Schumaker’s assertion, the Bulge, fought in December 1944 and January 1945, wasn’t part of the Battle of France, which had ended with the liberation of Paris in August 1944.) The Bulge looms large in the American imagination because the Allies failed to anticipate it, but the Axis effort had clearly collapsed by its second day and didn’t represent a strategic threat to the Allied position—indeed, a delighted Patton, knowing that German forces didn’t have the resources to pull off the offensive, urged allowing them to drive toward Paris, since they would soon literally run out of gas and could then be isolated and destroyed. The Germans could launch that attack, which all their commanders knew would fail, only because of the rapid and temporary shift of crack German armored units from the Eastern Front. (These units had to be quickly returned to the East to counter the Red Army’s siege of Budapest.) Moreover, Schumaker overstates the number of Germans engaged in the battle. Here he’s presumably following the German generals who, in an attempt to appear to fulfill Hitler’s orders for a huge offensive, engaged in what a U.S. Army historian of the battle describes as “a kind of double entry order of battle.” In fact, the Germans deployed just over 17 divisions (most less than full strength)—a total of 200,000 troops.

The U.S. did fight in the Pacific as well as in Europe, but wasn’t dividing its vast resources nearly equally between the two theaters. As Overy has calculated, 85 percent of the American effort was dedicated to defeating Germany, only 15 percent to the war with Japan.

Deficit Spending

The usually astute Clive Crook misunderstands the U.S. trade deficit (“When the Buck Stops,” May Atlantic). It is untrue that the trade deficit “has to be financed by borrowing.” If, for example, Toyota sells a Camry to an American and uses the sales proceeds to buy more land for expansion of its factory in Kentucky, America’s trade deficit rises without any American borrowing a cent. The trade deficit is not synonymous with debt.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Fairfax, Va.

AIDS In The Kingdom

While I found Nadya Labi’s “The Kingdom in the Closet” (May Atlantic) very informative, I was struck by the fact that there was no mention of AIDS. Certainly that must be addressed in a culture with widespread homosexual activity.

Annie Kirchner
Kensington, Md.

Nadya Labi replies:

Annie Kirchner raises a topic that deserves additional discussion. Last year, the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia reported that about 10,000 of the kingdom’s 27 million or so people were HIV-positive or had AIDS. That statistic is probably artificially low, though the numbers have been increasing in recent years even by the ministry’s own count. Still, it’s fair to say that AIDS has not reached crisis proportions in the kingdom. Any Saudi citizen with AIDS has the right to free medical care, which includes costly antiretroviral drugs.

The government’s attitude toward the disease is not wholly enlightened, however. Foreigners who test HIV-positive are often imprisoned and then deported. During my time in Jeddah, I visited the King Saud Hospital for Infectious and Contagious Diseases, which has a ward for AIDS patients. While in the ward, I saw a man lying in bed with his leg chained to the bedpost. I was unable to ask the doctors why the patient was imprisoned in this manner, because my visit was unofficial, but my translator told me that this kind of treatment is customary for foreign patients who are HIV-positive. Another journalist who visited the same hospital in 2005 interviewed HIV-positive patients who were kept in a crowded cage.

Debating Reality TV

Michael Hirschorn needs to lighten up (“The Case for Reality TV,” May Atlantic). Everyone needs their guilty pleasures, and “reality” television is his. My own include the oeuvre of Patrick Swayze, but I don’t attempt to defend my fascination by criticizing the snobbery of folks who dismiss it as vapid pap—precisely because it is vapid pap and thus, a guilty pleasure.

“Reality” television is just as contrived as regular old television, so much so that its editors and various behind-the-scenes types have lobbied for its inclusion in industry awards for writing. It presents a deliberately chosen spectrum of crazies, fame whores, and the economically and emotionally downtrodden, milking them for ratings in exchange for the chance to feel “special” very, very briefly.

Is this a good thing? In some cases, it can be. Shows like Extreme Home Makeover create change for people in need of serious help, and some programs help their participants realize professional dreams. But there is an enormous element of condescension in most of these shows. Witness Hirschorn’s own commentary on Deadliest Catch, in which he writes, “The producers have made it riveting by formatting the whole season as a sporting event … that, for all its contrivance, gives structure and meaning to the fishermen’s efforts.”

Television doesn’t provide these men with “structure and meaning”—their actual jobs and real, unedited lives do that, all on their own. If Hirschorn can’t derive “meaning” without the help of a contrived sporting event, then perhaps he should skip a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model and take a philosophy class—or simply take a walk.

Matthew Morse
New York, N.Y.

Editors’ Note:

In David Samuels’s article “Grand Illusions” (June Atlantic), the name of the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, was misspelled. We regret the error.